By Michelle Frankel
What do Audubon and Judaism have in common? They both teach us to be responsible stewards of the earth, and that each of us can take on personal actions to help repair the world. As we celebrate the Jewish New Year – the “birthday” of the Earth in Jewish tradition – and the fall harvest festival of Sukkot, I can’t think of a better time for some green tikkun olam, starting with our own backyards. By making just a few easy changes in the way we landscape, even the brownest thumb can create a backyard sanctuary for native wildlife and a healthy, pesticide-free haven that we and our children can enjoy.
Many species of native birds, bees and other wildlife in our region are on the decline. Unsurprisingly, a major cause is the development of natural habitat for urban or residential use. Connecticut's forests are being converted to urban/suburban land use at a dizzying rate, among the highest in the country. What's more, the use of pesticides and other toxic substances further degrades these habitats for wildlife – killing roughly seven million birds each year – and poses serious health risks for humans.
In rapidly developing Fairfield County, our town parks, gardens, beaches and backyards are the only potential refuges for a vast array of wildlife that call Connecticut home, including the millions of birds that pass through here twice each year in need of places to rest and refuel during migration. How we manage and care for these remaining green spaces – the habitats we protect, the plants we grow, the forms of pest control we apply and the amount of water we use – can have a significant impact on our native plants and wildlife, and on the health of our communities.
Audubon is spearheading an initiative called Audubon At Home, which promotes people-powered conservation in communities around the country. By empowering individuals with the tools and resources to take actions at home, work, school and in their community, we are collectively creating healthier, greener and more vibrant communities where people, birds and other wildlife thrive. Locally, Audubon Greenwich is working with Carmel Academy in Greenwich and other schools in Fairfield County to create schoolyard wildlife gardens and integrate them into the curriculum. We are also performing habitat assessments for private homeowners and corporate campuses to help them make their properties healthier for people and wildlife. For additional information, contact Audubon At Home coordinator Taralynn Reynolds at firstname.lastname@example.org.
So how do you create a backyard sanctuary? Here are some simple steps, with links to more information:
Greenest Pastures: Plant native plants, which support native birds, butterflies and bees. Good shrubs to support fall migrants and wintering birds are bayberry and winterberry holly.
Don't be a Drip: Plant drought-resistant plants; install a rain barrel; and water with a hand-held hose or drip-irrigation rather than with an automatic sprinkler.
Leave the leaves: Don’t bag your leaves or blow them onto roadsides. Instead, chop them with a lawnmower or shredder and use as mulch around shrubs and on planting beds.
Whack a weed: Remove invasive exotic plants and replace with natives. Don’t spray: Use non-toxic alternatives to pesticides and herbicides; use organic or slow-release fertilizers.
Wing it: Put up a bird nest box, feeder and bath. And join your local Audubon center or chapter.
This Rosh Hashanah, create a healthy environment for you, your family and native wildlife by taking the Healthy Yard Pledge!
Michelle Frankel, Ph.D. is a Conservation Biologist and Deputy Director of Development with Audubon Connecticut, based at the Audubon Center in Greenwich. She coordinates Audubon’s Urban Oases program, a multi-state initiative to improve urban green spaces for migratory songbirds. Michelle received her doctorate in behavioral ecology from Boston University, focusing on the effects of suburbanization on migratory songbirds. She pursued a post-doctoral fellowship with Tel Aviv University and the International Center for the Study of Bird Migration in Israel, where she studied the impacts of urbanization on the globally-threatened Lesser Kestrel. Michelle lives in Stamford with her husband, Cantor George Mordecai, and two daughters.